What Is A McMinnville Plant Business Sending Its Customers?
By Jennifer Kraus
Consumer Investigative Reporter
If you have a green thumb or wish you had one, this is the time of year, you're probably spending a lot of time in your yard and a lot of money on plants. But a NewsChannel 5 investigation is now raising questions about a McMinnville-based company that sends flowers and trees to customers around the country. NewsChannel5 Investigates discovered why people now say this is a business to avoid.
To get a garden full of color, the experts at Cheekwood say you start with strong, healthy plants, not the kind our investigation found people are getting from Summerstone Nursery based in Warren County. The company claims on its website to have the lowest prices anywhere in the country on flowers, trees, and shrubs. But, customers say, and our investigation confirmed, you get what you pay for.
Customers have complained for years about receiving dead plants, the wrong plants, or even no plants at all. Customers say the company has refused to give refunds or replacements and has even harassed customers who have called about their orders.
The state got so many complaints from around the country that finally last summer, the Attorney General's Office sued Summerstone accusing it of unfair or deceptive acts. But the case never made it to trial because Summerstone agreed in court that it would change the way it does business.
But we've discovered, not much has changed.
While Summerstone said it would get all of its corporate paperwork in order, the county clerk tells NewsChannel5 Investigates that Summerstone still doesn't have a valid business license.
Summerstone also promised to stop implying that the company grows its own plants. Yet Summerstone's website still has not been changed. There are still references to "our nursery" when in reality, the company is simply a mail-order business run out of a small office and adjoining warehouse.
The Better Business Bureau's Kathleen Calligan told NewsChannel5 Investigates she doesn't think Summerstone is taking the court order and what it agreed to seriously. She says the BBB has gotten hundreds of complaints about the company over the years. And, while Summerstone agreed in court to do a better job at making its customers happy, the complaints have continued to come in, everything from delivery issues to customers who say they were sent dead plants.
Calligan asks, "Why would anyone in this industry that knows nursery stock as well as you would know it if you were a professional in the industry ever ship anything like this?"
NewsChannel5 Investigates decided to see what Summerstone would send us. We ordered a variety of shrubs and trees. But when we opened the box, we found the company failed to send us three of the plants. And what they did send us was wrapped in simply some damp newspaper, not at all how it should have been shipped, according to Cheekwood horticulturist Leigh Anne Lomax.
We asked her to take a look at our plants. Overall, the roots, she told us, "are just so dried out. I mean, they're just bone dry."
Other plants, she examined had mold.
"You don't ever want to see roots with black on them like that. That's a sign of a fungus," she told us.
Many of these plants, she said, were dying while others were already dead.
As she went plant by plant, Lomax said, "There's no life at all here. This is not alive. This one is not alive."
And, at least one of the plants, Lomax informed us, wasn't even what we'd ordered.
"I don't think this is fountain grass."
And those that were at least healthy, she told us, were not in the kind of shape she'd put in her garden.
Lomax pointed to one plant and shared, "Clearly it's been cut straight off with no regard to where the buds are."
She continued, "Every single nursery that's growing plants, they're going to have some disease issues or some kind of problems. But, generally speaking, those nurseries are not going to ship those plants out. They're going to look at them and say, 'This is not the quality we want to be selling and we're just not going to ship them out.'"
NewsChannel5 Investigates tried to talk with Summerstone owner Sam Womack, but by the time we got through the front door, he was already calling police to have us removed.
NewsChannel5 Investigates asked the BBB's Calligan, "You thought this company would have changed its ways after being sued by the state?"
"Oh, of course. Yeah," Calligan answered.
And Calligan says based on what she's seeing now she doesn't feel like Summerstone's owners are interested in doing things any different.
"This is a company that the Better Business Bureau feels that we can do without," she added.
An attorney for Summerstone Nursery insists that in the court agreement, Summerstone never admitted to doing anything wrong, and that the hundreds of complaints that have been filed against the company are relatively small when compared to the thousands of orders that they ship every year.
Still, he admits that the company failed to get a business license and that it erroneously referred to itself as a nursery on its website. Both of those issues, he assured NewsChannel5 Investigates will now be corrected.
NewsChannel5 Investigates also discovered that Summerstone owner Sam Womack has been sanctioned by the Federal Trade Commission, not once but twice, going back some 30 years. Even back then, he was accused of sending dead plants or never sending plants to customers. He was ordered to give refunds to customers then, but failed to do so, so his company was hit with a $10,000 dollar fine.